President Barack Obama, declaring that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” used his second inaugural address to make an impassioned appeal to defend the social safety net that was at the heart of his reelection campaign.
In a speech marked by uplifting rhetoric but few specifics, Obama told the crowd gathered outside the Capitol’s west front on a chilly Monday that “we are made for this moment and we will seize it, as long as we seize it together.”
It was a high-minded speech, strongly delivered, as we have come to expect from Obama the orator, but devoid of phrases likely to be remembered beyond the next few days. The address was an affirmation of principles rather than a call to action.
The 44th president broke into a church sermon cadence only toward the end when he repeatedly said “our journey is not complete” until various groups—gays, minorities, immigrants—share in America’s progress.
And there was a single reference to Newtown, which comprised a hint about, rather than an appeal for, Obama’s gun control legislation, which faces a tough path under the glistening marble dome behind him.
In an echo of his battle against Mitt Romney, against the backdrop of another showdown with Republicans over spending cuts, Obama said: “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
That word—“takers”—was an undisguised reference to Romney’s disparaging campaign comment about the 47 percent of Americans he said rely on government programs.
Obama added an obligatory sentence—“we must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit”—that acknowledged the need for spending cuts, but ran counter to the narrative of the speech. That narrative was built on a classic Democratic approach to activist problem-solving: “And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.”
Obama devoted a paragraph to the need for the United States to lead in combating climate change. And while praising the bravery of American troops, he invoked Iraq and Afghanistan by saying that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
It was in his closing peroration that Obama finally lifted the speech above the level of platitudes:
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
It could also be said that he was paying tribute to the demographic groups that helped make sure he got to take the oath of office again.
Second-term inaugural speeches are hard to make memorable after the battle scars of the previous four years. Obama did not break the mold but, with his customary eloquence, laid down a broad marker for his second term.
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